The realms of the dead, p.7
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       The Realms of the Dead, p.7


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  “Grounded and centered, Control. Nothing to worry about. Just a little hitch. Won’t happen again.”

  At the bottom of the stairs was a lightless void. With his focus returned, however, Chuck didn’t need to see. He could feel the walls on either side of him, could sense when passages branched out, and knew without exploring them which ones lead only to dead ends. With his silver cord trailing behind, he felt like Theseus in the labyrinth of King Minos. The horrors awaiting him here, however, were far worse than anything imagined in ancient myths; for he could feel the presence of something unnatural in the darkness, a beast whose mere scent would scatter herds of minotaurs in a frightened stampede.

  And it was close.

  If he hadn’t performed The Tree Exercise before descending into the darkness, Chuck wouldn’t have stood a chance. The creature would have homed in on his emotions and pulled him down, calculating its attacks as it milked pain and terror from his thrashing body.

  But for now he was safe. He told himself that he, too, was a professional. Even though he hadn’t received any of the advanced training—even though he’d only previously dealt with simple Crossfades constructed by children and infants—he told himself he was ready. And, at that moment, Chuck actually believed it.

  He moved through the corridors at a brisk pace, adjusting his trajectory each time he heard a moan or sob from the solitary woman; the din of suffering had faded completely, telling him the souls who endured that particular Hell had been somewhere farther up the stairs. Down here, far beneath the tower, there was just that one voice, and he was positive finding the woman it belonged to would be the key. If he could save just one person from this place, it would prove beyond all doubt that he had what it took. That he would then be able to ascend the stairwell and tackle the larger job.

  With his focus returned, Control fell silent, allowing him to concentrate solely on the task at hand. Minimal distraction, maximum concentration: just as the handbook advised.

  In time, Chuck saw a doorway in the distance and readied himself. Whatever lay on the other side wouldn’t be good. He knew this. But he also knew that he had to press on. The mission demanded it.

  In the darkness, something sniffed.

  Metal grated against stone in a long, slow scrape.

  The doorway loomed closer and the woman’s crying was so loud that she could have been standing right beside him. A twinge of fear returned to Chuck’s stomach as his insecurities bubbled through stomach acids, undermining the confidence he’d fought so hard to attain.

  He’d bit off more than he could chew. He wasn’t ready for this. He needed to pull out.

  “Stay calm,” he reminded himself. “Don’t blow your cover. Just breathe and remember what Control said: This is only as real as you allow it to be.”

  But with every step, it was harder to maintain detachment.

  With every step, the creature sniffed a little more insistently.

  Chuck struggled to reel in his emotions, but part of him suspected he’d never make it through that door. And that part whimpered softly as unseen feet scuffled through the darkness.

  Chapter 7

  Chinese Finger Puzzles

  The searing pain contorted Lydia’s face as she screamed, pulling her lips back into in a rictus of suffering. In the blood-tinted darkness of eyes squeezed shut, fireworks from overloaded synapses burst in rapid succession as spasms twitched her limbs. There was no reality other than the one of pain. Lydia couldn’t feel the warm gush of liquid as her bladder voided, nor smell its acrid pungency; she couldn’t see the puddle spreading across the floor or hear the screech rattling through a throat that bulged with veins and muscle. Eternity was condensed into a span of seconds and then, as quickly as it had erupted, it was gone.

  Lydia lay on the floor, gasping for breath as she blinked away the last afterimages of the grand finale. Her heart galloped in an irregular rhythm, beating so hard and fast that it felt like the fluttering of wings within her chest. She lay perfectly still, fighting back the chills that threatened to wrack her body, convinced that the slightest movement would herald fresh flares of misery.

  In time, her breathing evened out and her pulse slowed until it could no longer be felt. Other than a stiffness in her neck, there were no residual aches or pangs. Time passed. Eventually, she noticed that the tiles she lay on gleamed with reflected light. The cracks had all but vanished and the grout segmenting the ceramic squares was stark white. No trace of mold or mildew tainted the air, the musty odor being replaced by an aroma that conjured images of palm trees and coconuts.

  Despite the fear of pain, Lydia lifted her head. A braided rag rug lay where the bloated corpse had been and the tub was pristine, looking as though it had never been stained by stagnant water. By one of the claw feet, a bottle of pills had toppled; the childproof lid hid in the shadows beneath the tub and tiny green triangles with rounded corners spilled out of the bottle’s mouth and onto the floor. Though the print on the prescription label was too small to read at that distance, Lydia somehow knew the tablets were Xanax. She also knew that some of the pills had been taken. More than a few, but less than a handful. How she knew this, she couldn’t say; it was as if the knowledge were somehow ingrained in her, as instinctual as breathing or blinking.

  A steady stream flowed from the bath’s faucet and the air was warm and humid, telling Lydia that the water was hot before she even saw the wisps of steam curling into the air.

  She sat up carefully, but there was no pain.

  “Uh…hello?”

  If the woman slouched in the tub heard the question, she gave no indication. The moisture in the air beaded upon shoulder-length blond hair darkening at the roots and wayward wisps clung to high cheekbones. With her chin tucked against her chest, the woman’s half-closed eyes watched sweat trickle down her small breasts as her thin lips pulled into a frown.

  Like everything else that had happened, Lydia accepted the most recent turn of events without question. There was no logic to this new reality, no system of order that could be imposed upon a world that possessed the incongruous rationale of a nightmare but felt real; if she could find herself chased through the darkness by a creature that sounded as if it shouldn’t exist and if festering corpses could crawl across the floor, why couldn’t she travel backward in time? For she was certain that was what had happened.

  This had to be the same room she’d sought sanctuary in. The layers of dust and grime were gone, but a sink stood exactly where the pile of rubble had previously been. Two candles burned on either side of the faucets, the flickering flames carrying tropical aromas from the scented wax, and a folded piece of paper was taped to the medicine cabinet’s mirror. The words To Whom It May Concern were written in a graceful, flowing script on the top flap of the paper, and Lydia could just make out something scribbled within.

  It was odd, but this all somehow felt familiar. Even the woman in the tub seemed like someone she once may have known, an old friend perhaps who’d been lost to the plunders of amnesia. And lost, Lydia decided, was definitely the right word.

  With her head bowed and a pallor of exhaustion draining color from her face, the woman looked as though her spirit had shriveled into a dry husk of defeat. There was a hollowness to her that went beyond her sunken cheeks and tired eyes; she seemed spent and cast aside, just another piece of refuse ignored by passersby and left to be ravaged by the elements. There was no joy here, no spark of hope or dreams of the future; there was only abject disappointment personified.

  It occurred to Lydia that if she stood, she’d be able to see herself in the mirror. She’d know what her face looked like and would reclaim the intimacy of her own features. Perhaps the reflection would trigger a chain reaction of memory; perhaps a lifetime of experience would flood her mind, answering all the questions that should have plagued her, but didn’t. If nothing else, she would simply know what others saw when they looked upon her…and even that would be enough.

  And yet she felt so
tired. It was as if her muscles had transformed into flaccid ribbons that lacked the strength required for movement. Even sitting up seemed to require every ounce of willpower she possessed. It would be so much easier to simply sprawl across the floor and close her eyes, to let the cool tiles and sound of running water lull her into a dreamless sleep…

  The woman in the tub turned her head so languidly that it seemed as if time had slowed to a crawl. She looked at Lydia through bloodshot eyes, her expression blank.

  “There you are.” The soft lilt of the woman’s voice sounded vaguely familiar. “I’ve been waiting for you. Come…”

  Lydia blinked, and when her eyes opened again hot water lapped against her belly. She sat in the opposite end of the tub, facing the other woman as steam curled around her breasts. Their bodies were intertwined, each woman having her legs wrapped around the other, and water no longer surged from the tap. Now there was nothing more than a steady drip and the lapping of water against porcelain with the slightest of movements.

  “I was afraid I’d chicken out.” The woman nodded toward the pills scattered across the floor. “But it’s the only thing I want. So I had to make sure. I had to be certain…understand?”

  Lydia did. For she now felt what was within her companion. She could never cry again, for all the tears had been used up long ago. Like a well that had run dry, there was nothing more than a hollow pit. Joy, ambition, anger, regret, and love: All emotion crumbled away, tumbling into the numbing darkness, falling forever without reaching an end. Each day was exactly like the last, every hour a never-ending trudge toward the refuge of sleep.

  The woman extended her left hand toward Lydia, palm up with the wrist slightly bent. This made the veins running down its center stand out in sharp relief, and for the first time, Lydia noticed that the woman pinched something between the thumb and forefinger of her other hand. The safety razor had been snapped in half along its length and the beveled edge gleamed as the woman turned it back and forth.

  “We’ll do it together, Lydia. You and me, for all eternity. No more pain. No more tedium. It will all go away. For a while, at least. But when we come back, we’ll do it again, okay? And again…and again. If we do it enough, maybe one day we won’t come back. Maybe it won’t start over.”

  The physical pain that had separated the dilapidated ruins of the restroom from this cleaner version seemed a welcome alternative to what Lydia now felt. As the other woman spoke, a quiet voice whispered in the back of her mind, its words like poison-tipped barbs shredding the remnants of her soul.

  Useless, pathetic, a strain on everyone you know…

  She wanted to cry, to purge herself of the formless despair dissolving all that had ever been good or joyous; but she wasn’t even worth the tears, was she? To cry would be selfish, and she’d been told so many times to think of someone other than herself, to suck it up and just get the fuck up out of bed. She’d seen the disgust masquerading as concern, had heard exasperation poorly imitate compassion…she knew what they truly thought about her.

  Lazy, selfish, you’re just trying to get attention, pointless and weak…

  But the razor would make all that go away, wouldn’t it? It would silence the constant whispers of derision, would wash away the doubt and uncertainty in a purifying rush of blood; she’d slip into the comforting arms of eternal darkness, knowing no one would ever be burdened by her again. Taking her own life would be her single act of selflessness. It wasn’t about her giving up…it was about setting everyone else free.

  “At least for a while. But it will start over. I’ll have to do it again…and again…and again.”

  Lydia realized the words came from her own mouth; she had been alone in the tub all along. Alone as she’d always been. For now the memories were back, and she understood why she’d been in no hurry to recover them. She remembered the emptiness, the terrible longing for an end to it all. She knew exactly what the note taped to the mirror said, but more important, she knew it had been a mere formality. The note was simply something for first responders to shake their heads at as they hauled her pale, wrinkled body from the tub; it was something to answer the lingering questions of why, not because she truly believed anyone cared but because removing the mystery would ensure she would fade from history as quickly as possible.

  The razor blade was cool against her fingertips and the faucet dripped as if crying the tears Lydia never could.

  The vein in her wrist pulsed and throbbed.

  A few minutes of pain.

  An eternity of blessed nothingness.

  Catching movement from the corner of her eye, Lydia glanced to the side as she poised the razor above her wrist.

  “Do you really want to do that?”

  The man standing by the side of the tub radiated a light blue glow and fluctuated in and out of existence. When he moved just so, Lydia could see what looked like a glowing umbilical cord streaming behind him, gradually fading in a way that suggested a vast expanse. His brown hair was shaggy and a goatee covered the lower half of his face; but what she noticed most was the kindness of his eyes. With no trace of malice or mockery, the corners of his lids crinkled with concern as he patiently awaited an answer.

  Lydia opened her mouth, but there were no words. Everything had already been said, and now there was only the final act.

  “It won’t end, you know. You do that and everything begins over again. Think of it as being stuck in a continuous loop film. Do you really want to feel this way for all of Time?”

  The whisper in the back of Lydia’s mind told her this man didn’t really care. He was simply going through the motions to ensure he was able to sleep at night, so he could tell himself, “Well, at least I tried…”

  “I don’t know exactly what you’re thinking, but I can tell you it’s not true.” A rare emotion must have flickered across her face, for the man continued hurriedly, holding up his palms to demonstrate his harmlessness. “Your aura, see? It changed colors, got dark. I mean really, really dark.”

  He squatted next to the bathtub and propped his elbows on its rim, interlacing his fingers so they formed a hammock for his chin.

  “Look,” he said, “I can’t tell you what to do. I can’t stop you. But I can give you the facts so at least you make an informed decision, okay? Fact one: None of this is real. All this already happened and you don’t have to go through it again. It’s a choice.”

  He paused as if giving her a moment to ask questions, before going on.

  “Fact two: It’s easier to make that choice the first go-around. The longer you believe in all of this, the stronger its hold over you becomes. It’s like one of those Chinese finger puzzles.” As the words crossed his lips, Lydia realized that his hands weren’t interlaced as she first thought, but connected by small, woven bamboo cylinders. “When you believe in it, the trap tightens. But the moment you start pushing back, its hold loosens, forming an opening.”

  The razor moved away from Lydia’s wrist as tears clouded her vision. The man’s tone suggested he knew what he was talking about. There was a quiet confidence that only came with the certainty of truth…something she had not personally known for a very long time.

  “Who…who are you?”

  “Just a concerned soul.” The man flashed a lopsided grin and shook his head a single time as if making a joke; but Lydia could tell it wasn’t at her expense, and she instinctively leaned forward, gravitating toward even the smallest glimmer of hope. “See, there it is. A flicker of pale yellow in your aura. Kinda like distant lightning in a thunderhead. But I saw it. I know what it means.”

  They were both silent for a moment, listening to the leaky faucet plunk into the water as they looked into each other’s eyes.

  “Anyhow,” he finally said, “fact three: You only have what you bring in to this place. And since it’s yours, you can drop it anytime you like. Adjustment can be difficult, I know. But you have to accept that you’re not really human anymore. What you think of as life is over. But
that’s just the beginning. There is so much more; a whole new adventure waiting for you. But you can’t get there if you choose this place. So what’s it gonna be? Are you worth it?”

  She was. Somewhere deep inside, she knew this. She knew she’d always possessed the strength she’d mistakenly thought she lacked. It was as if the man had told her that her heart was beating and she’d felt her pulse for the very first time. The more she concentrated, the more she felt it. Stirrings of…something.

  The bathroom was suddenly in ruins again, the cracks and dust appearing in the amount of time it took to wipe a tear from her eye. She was still squatting on the floor with an outstretched hand, but the bloated corpse that had reached back was now a withered husk, looking more like a mummified pod that anything even remotely human. As she watched, a draft blew in from the darkened doorway and the remains dissolved into a cloud of charcoal-gray powder that scattered on the currents.

  “Manifested Negative Thought-Form.” The man said the words as if they explained everything. “Nasty little buggers. They’re born of pain, see, but they also require it to survive. End up attaching themselves to a host and making that host relive the worst possible moments of his or her mortal life. That’s how they feed. But you beat it. You should be proud of yourself. It’s really not as easy as you made it look.”

  He extended his hand and helped Lydia to her feet with a smile. It occurred to her that at some point during their conversation, he’d become entirely solid. If she glanced at him peripherally, she could almost see the ribbon, but it disappeared no matter how quickly she tried to snare it in her gaze.

  “You never answered my question. Who are you?”

  “No time for that now.” The man trotted over to the doorway and peered into the darkness without actually crossing the threshold. “To make myself known to you, I had to tap in to my emotions. Problem is, you’re not the only one who can see me now. I’ve created quite an uproar, I’m afraid.”

 
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